50 years later, two brothers finish a Bugeye Sprite

Photography Credit: John Webber

If you’re scooting through Spring Garden, Alabama, on Route 29, you won’t be slowed by traffic lights. There aren’t any. The population of this hamlet has hovered around 200 for the last couple of decades, so traffic backups don’t present a problem. 

Businesses are few, but Spring Garden does have its own post office, open from noon until 4p.m. on weekdays and 7 to 9 a.m. on Saturdays. For 30 years, the squat block building, which the USPS shares with the long-closed Santa Fe store, held a secret. 

While folks picked up their mail and swapped stories in the front, the back room housed Tim Merrill’s old Sprite. “I doubt that many knew it was there,” Tim says. And he should know; he owns the building. An unsuspecting enthusiast who stumbled on this prize might well call it a post office find, which evokes more intrigue than barn find, don’t you think?

Tim’s Bugeye, the 1583rd Sprite built, left BMC’s plant in Abington on July 1, 1958, headed for Dusseldorf, Germany, no doubt ordered by a GI stationed there. By the time it joined the Merrill clan in Piedmont, Alabama, a decade later, it had seen its share of hard times and was out of commission with a broken driveline. Its owner, a soldier from Fort McClellan, dragged it to Merrill’s Cars and Parts, owned by Tim’s dad, Claude. 

Claude was an ace mechanic and fabricator, and his 25-acre complex–which offered car sales, a repair shop, a body and paint facility and a salvage yard–was known as a haven for “foreign” cars, then somewhat rare and viewed with suspicion in those parts. But Claude’s place was known for fixing autos of all kinds, so the Bugeye ended up there. Cars were a family tradition with the Merrills, and Claude shared his love of things mechanical with all his five kids. Car fever ran in their DNA.

Claude fixed the Bugeye and flipped it to a Jacksonville State student named Fred Windsor. Two years later, Fred drove the Sprite back in, this time shopping for a ride with more room. Claude offered him $75 in trade, and Fred happily drove away in a chartreuse 1957 VW van. 

Fifty-one years later, that Bugeye is still in the family. Tim, who never throws anything away, still has the 1971 Alabama tag this Sprite wore when it came to his dad’s shop.

When his younger brother Zach, then 14 and a budding mechanic, spotted the worn-out roadster, he looked ahead two years and saw the perfect car to launch his legal (he learned to drive at age 9) driving career. Claude gave Zach the Bugeye. 

Growing up, the Merrill boys took full advantage of the rolling stock that came through their dad’s business, especially the sporty models. “We drove whatever Daddy had,” Tim says, “until a bank note needed paying. Then they got sold.” Zach agrees, “Cars earned their keep at Merrill’s. Selling cars paid the bills.” Somehow, this Sprite was to avoid that fate.

Brothers Zach (left) and Tim Merrill grew up in an automotive wonderland full of used parts, greasy tools and Britain’s best. Photography Credit: John Webber (portraits), Courtesy Tim and Zach Merrill

Zach immediately tore into the Bugeye. He read his dad’s “BMC Special Tuning” book, took notes and roamed the salvage yard. “Every day in that junkyard was like Christmas,” he says. “I could use whatever I found.” 

He pulled the Bugeye’s 948cc engine for an overhaul, but before he could begin, he was dismayed to see it leaving the shop in the bed of a truck. Dad had sold it. 

Ah, you’ll want a bigger engine anyway,” Claude told him. Soon, a wrecked Sprite showing only 19,000 miles yielded its 1275cc engine, ribcase transmission, 3.9:1 differential, disc brakes and suspension. To add a bit of bling, Zach raided the yard for a set of wire wheels and splines. 

Feeling the need for more speed, he sent the head out to be milled. Then he hand-ported and port-matched the head and manifolds, performed a valve job and recurved the timing, all heady work for a kid. 

He even started on the bodywork. “I did a lot of work on this car,” Zach says, “and I learned a lot.” But as time passed, his interest waned. 

While young Zach was known for his mechanical prowess, for his attention span and commitment, not so much. By the time he turned 16, he had moved up to a ’65 Mustang, an EMPI dune buggy, and discovered girls, not in that order. 

The unfinished Sprite and its pile of parts languished in the basement of Claude’s shop, taking up valuable space. As time passed, the Bugeye was hauled away and stored in a rented henhouse. Tim, fondly recalling the white Bugeye he enjoyed in college, became its guardian.

The years rolled on. In the early ’90s, a storm destroyed the henhouse and dumped water on the Bugeye. Feeling its pain, Tim dragged it out of the rubble and hauled it to his post office building in Spring Garden. 

Sometime before this storm event, a grown-up Zach, no longer a stranger to commitment, suffered pangs of guilt over the car. “I officially gave [Tim] ownership,” Zach recalls. “I called it a pre-opened Sprite kit. He deserved it. I had taken advantage of his goodwill and generosity long enough. Without Tim, this car would have been long gone. He rescued and preserved this car.”

Younger brothers, right? Could this former teen slacker atone for his neglect? “I became the head cheerleader on this long-delayed restoration,” Zach says, “My participation was a long-overdue follow-up with a project I started 50 years ago.”

Finally, Starting Over

In 2020, Tim, now retired, decided it was time to restore his Sprite. “I always wanted to do it,” he says, “I just could never find the time.” He had been busy with life: marriage, taking over his dad’s business, caring for his parents as they aged, and owning a succession of cool cars. 

He still owns a pristine rubber-bumper MGB with fewer than 2000 miles on it. Exactly how many cars in his possession? “I have no idea,” he says.

He pulled the Bugeye and its pile of parts out of the post office building and hauled them to his home shop, knowing that he faced a complete resto. The careful work his little brother had started in 1971 had been erased by time. So Tim and a helper pulled the engine, removed all the mechanical bits, the wiring, interior–eventually every nut, bolt and fastener. 

When they had reduced the shell to its bones, they mounted it on a rotisserie. The pair laboriously hand-stripped the layers of crazed and cracked paint and were delighted to find the metal in better shape than Tim had feared. 

Nearly 50 years after Zach lost interest in his Bugeye, brother Tim stripped it down to the basics for a full redo. Photography Credit: Courtesy Tim and Zach Merrill

“We found surprisingly little rust and no real accident damage,” he says, “just a few bumps and dents.” Somehow, this Bugeye survived its years in Germany, a boat trip to the U.S., hard use and neglect here, and the collapse of a henhouse without significant damage.

Once all was revealed, Tim trailered the shell to Greg Donaldson’s paint and body shop in Piedmont, where it was reinstalled on the rotisserie. Greg is an expert who (naturally) learned his craft years ago at Merrill’s Cars and Parts. 

“He’s an old-school paint and body guy,” Tim says. “He uses the same materials and techniques he perfected decades ago. They still work fine.” 

Greg is also a stickler for proper panel alignment, and early Bugeyes were not known for their panel fit. Once the metal was repaired and finished, the shell and bonnet were sprayed in dark British Racing Green (the very color Zach chose in 1971), and Greg and Tim spent hours fiddling with panel fit. 

Their work paid off. The door and bonnet alignments are a clear improvement over BMC’s efforts in 1958. Just in case anything had gone missing in half a century of storage and moves, Tim found a Bugeye parts car and hauled it home.

While the body of the finished product remains nearly stock, Tim decided to retain the mechanical upgrades young Zach had made. “Everything about it is what he put into it when he was 14,” Tim says. Massaged and improved, of course.

Mechanical Bits

Tim thought it fitting that his brother should have an opportunity to redeem himself, so Zach got all the greasy bits. Few tinkerers get to evaluate their work after 50 years, right? So how did his youthful adventures grade out? “Most of it looked surprisingly good,” Zach says, “although some of the things I did I’d now classify as ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time.’”

The years of damp storage had seized the engine, but careful treatment freed it without damage to pistons or bores. Once it was cleaned up, the engine received new core plugs, piston rings, bearings, timing components, seals and gaskets. Every part was evaluated and rebuilt or replaced. 

This warmed-up 1275cc version has been tweaked to deliver all its 65 horsepower. Tim calls it “a sweetheart of an engine that’s peppy and well behaved.” Photography Credit: John Webber

The ribcase transmission had suffered water damage and was completely rebuilt. So was the differential. Clutch, brake, and suspension systems received the same treatment. Over the months, as the stacks of shiny parts grew, it was time for the brothers to join forces.

Final Push

They hauled everything to Tim’s shop and began the assembly, taking care to avoid inflicting damage on the sparkling Sprite, its new components and themselves. It was summer in Alabama and, despite a 42-inch fan, the temperature in the shop hovered around 92 degrees. 

They both admit that wrenching on the tiny car was not nearly as easy as it was 50 years ago, especially when an elderly body is twisted pretzel-like under the dash. Crawling over and under a Bugeye is better suited to 14-year-olds. 

The Sprite, which had spent most of its life in pieces, was now spread out like a jigsaw puzzle, and it didn’t go back together easily. Every individual fastener, washer and clip had been bead-blasted and zinc-plated. Where did they all go? Take your pick.

Weeks passed. The heavily weathered parts car yielded some vital pieces, including, surprisingly, a pristine windshield. Slowly the Bugeye began to resemble a car. 

As every restorer knows, firing up the engine is a milestone guaranteed to fray nerves and boost heart rates. Finally, Tim asked, “When are we going to try to start it?” Zach replied, “How about now?”

He pulled the choke, turned the key, waited for the SU pump to stop clicking and pulled the starter knob. “It started like it had been running the night before,” Tim recalls. 

With a heroic push, the brothers Merrill finished the resto days before Tim’s 78th birthday. Despite all the challenges, they tell us they enjoyed each other’s company, worked well together and are still on speaking terms. The strenuous, sweat-soaked, sometimes tedious build created no family fireworks: no thrown tools, screamed curses or fits of temper. “It would have made for very boring car show reality TV,” Zach observes. 

Did Zach redeem himself? Tim, who has always been willing to cut his kid brother some slack, says he most certainly did. “I could never have finished this car without him,” he says. This time around, the restoration took nearly a year. Or, as Zach puts it, “Depends on how you do the math. After all, it was started 50 years ago.”

Photography Credit: John Webber

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Comments
sir_mike
sir_mike Reader
12/29/22 11:40 a.m.

Great story and beautiful bugeye

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